Joho the Blog » net neutrality

June 29, 2012

[aspen] Eric Schmidt on the Net and Democracy

Eric Schmidt is being interviewed by Jeff Goldberg about the Net and Democracy. I’ll do some intermittent, incomplete liveblogging…

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

NOTE: Posted without having even been re-read. Note note (a few hours later): I’ve done some basic cleanup.

After some amusing banter, Jeff asks Eric about how responsible he felt Google was for Arab Spring. Jeff in passing uses the phrase “Internet revolution.”

ES: Arab Spring was enabled by a failure to censure the Internet. Google enabled people to organize themselves. Especially in Libya, five different militias were able to organize their armed revolt by using the Net. It’s unfair to the people who died to call it an “Internet revolution.” But there were fewer people who died, in part because of the incessant media coverage. And we’ve seen that it’s very easy to start what some call an Internet revolution, but very hard to finish it.

JG: These were leaderless revolutions, crowdsourced revolution. But in Egypt the crowd’s leaders were easily pushed aside after Mubarek fell.

ES: True leaders are very hard to find. In Libya, there are 80 militias, armed to the teeth. In most of the countries there were repressed Muslim groups that have emerged as leaders because they organized while repressed. Whoever takes over inherits financial and social problems, and will be thrown out if they fail.

JG: Talk about Google’s tumultuous relationship with China…

ES: There are lots of reasons to think that China works because its citizens like its hierarchical structure. But I think you can’t build a knowledge society without freedom. China wants to be a knowledge society. It’s unclear if China’s current model gets them past a middle income GDP. Google thought that if we gave them free access to info, the Chinese people would revolt. We were wrong, and we moved Google to Hong Kong, on the open side of the Great Firewall. (We had to because that’s the Chinese law.) Now when you enter a forbidden query, we tell the user that it’s likely to be blocked. We are forbidden from announcing what the forbidden terms are because we don’t want employees put in jail.

JG: Could Arab Spring happen in China? Could students organize Tianamen Square now?

ES: They could use the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. But if someone organizes a protest, two people show up, plus 30 media, and 50 police.

JG: Google’s always argued that democratization of info erodes authoritarian control. Do you still believe that?

ES: The biggest thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to learn about the differences among people in and within countries. I continue to believe that this device [mobile phone] will change the world. The way to solve most of the world’s problems is by educating people. Because these devices will become ubiquitous, it’ll be possible to see how far we humans can get. With access to the Net, you can sue for justice. In the worst case you can actually shame people.

JG: And these devices can be used to track people.

ES: Get people to understand they have choices, and they will eventually organize. Mobiles tend to record info just by their nature. The phone company knows where you are right now. You’re not worried about that because a law says the phone company can’t come harass you where you’re sitting. In a culture where there isn’t agreement about basic rights…

JG: Is there evidence that our democracy is better off for having the Internet?

ES: When we built the Net, that wasn’t the problem we were solving. But more speech is better. There’s a lack of deliberative time in our political process. Our leaders will learn that they’ll make better decisions if they take a week to think about things. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail. We complain about our democracy, but we’re doing quite well. The US is the beacon of innovation, not just in tech, but in energy. “In God we trust … all others have to bring data.” Politicians should just start with some facts.

JG: It’s easier to be crazy and wrong on the Net.

ES: 0.5% of Americans are literally crazy. Two years ago, their moms got them broadband connections. And they have a lot of free time. Google is going to learn how to rank them. Google should enable us to hear all these voices, including the crazy people, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.

JG: I googled “Syria massacre” this morning, and the first story was from Russia Today that spun it…

ES: It’s good that you have a choice. We have to educate ourselves and our children. Not everything written is true, and very powerful forces want to convince you of lies. The Net allows that, and we rank against it, but you have to do your own investigation.

JG: Google is hitting PR problems. Talk about privacy…

ES: There’s no delete button on the Net. When you’re a baby, no one knows anything about you. As you move through life, inevitably more people know more about you. We’re going to have to learn about that. The wifi info gathering by StreetView was an error, a mistake, and we’ve apologized for it.

JG: The future of journalism?

ES: A number of institutions are figuring out workable models. The Atlantic [our host]. Politico. HuffingtonPost. Clever entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money. The traditional incumbents have been reduced in scale, but there are plenty of new voices. BTW, we just announced a tablet with interactive, dynamic magazines. To really worry about: We grew up with the bargain that newspapers had enough cash flow to fund long term investigative research. That’s a loss to democracy. The problem hasn’t been fully solved. Google has debated how to solve it, but we don’t want to cross the content line because then we’d be accused of bias in our rankings.

JG: Will search engines search for accuracy rather than popularity?

ES: Google’s algorithms are not about popularity. They’re about link structures, and we start from well-known sources. So we’re already there. We just have to get better.

JG: In 5 yrs what will the tech landscape look like?

ES: Moore’s Law says that in 5 yrs there will be more power for less money. We forget how much better our hw is now than even 5 years. And it’s faster than Moore’s Law for disks and fiber optic connections. Google is doing a testbed optical installation. At that bandwidth all media are just bits. We anticipate a lot of specialty devices.

JG: How do you expect an ordinary, competent politician to manage the info flow? Are we inventing tech that is past our ability to process info?

ES: The evidence is that the tech is bringing more human contact. The tech lets us express our humanity. We need a way of sorting politicians better. I’d suggest looking for leaders who work from facts.

JG: Why are you supporting Obama?

ES: I like having a smart president.

JG: Is Romney not smart?

ES: I know him. He’s a good man. I like Obama’s policies better.

Q&A

Q: Our connectivity is 3rd world. Why haven’t we been able to upgrade?

A: The wireless networks are running out of bandwidth. The prediction is they’ll be saturated in 2016. Maybe 2017. That’s understandable: Before, we were just typing online and now we’re watching movies. The White House in a few weeks is releasing a report that says that we can share bandwidth to get almost infinite bandwidth. Rather than allocating a whole chunk that leaves most of it unused, using interference databases we think we can fix this problem. [I think but please correct me: A database of frequency usages so that unused frequencies in particular geographic areas can be used for new signals.]

A: The digital can enhance our physical connections. E.g., a grandmother skyping with a grandchild.

JG: You said you can use the Net to shame govts. But there are plenty of videos of Syria doing horrible things, but it’s done no good.

ES: There are always particularly evil people. Syria is the exception. Most countries, even autocratic ones, are susceptible to public embarrassment.

Q: Saying “phones by their nature collect data” evades responsibility.

ES: I meant that in order to their work, they collect info. What we allow to be done with that info is a legal, cultural issue.

Q: Are we inherently critical thinkers? If not, putting info out there may not lead to good decisions.

ES: There’s evidence that we’re born to react quickly. Our brains can be taught reasoning. But it requires strong family and education.

Q: Should there be a bill of rights to simplify the legalese that express your privacy rules?

ES: It’s a fight between your reasonable point of view, and the lawyers and govt that regulate us. Let me reassure you: If you follow the goal of Google to have you as a customer, the quickest way to lose you is to misuse your information. We are one click away from competitors who are well run and smart. [unless there was money in it, or unless they could get away with it, or...]

Q: Could we get rid of representative democracy?

ES: It’ll become even more important to have democratic processes because it’s all getting more complicated. For direct democracy we’d have to spend all day learning about the issues and couldn’t do our jobs.

JG: David Brooks, could you comment? Eric is an enormous optimist…

ES: …The evidence is on my side!

JG: David, are you as sanguine that our politicians will learn to slow their thinking down, and that Americans have the skills to discern the crap from the true.

David Brooks: It’s not Google’s job to discern what’s true. There are aggregators to do this, including the NYT and TheBrowser. I think there’s been a flight to quality. I’m less sanguine about attention span. I’m less sanguine about confirmation bias, which the Web makes easier.

ES: I generally agree with that. There’s evidence that we tend to believe the first thing we hear, and we judge plus and minus against that. The answer is always for me culture, education.

Q: Will there be a breakthrough in education?

ES: Education changes much more slowly than the world does. Sometimes it seems to me that education is run for the benefit of the teachers. They should do measurable outcomes, A-B testing. There’s evidence that physics can be taught better by setting a problem and then do a collaborative effort, then another problem…

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May 24, 2012

[mesh] Michael Geist on the emergence of the Internet constituency

Michael Geist (@mgeist), a Canadian hero, is giving at talk at Mesh.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

When SOPA was introduced, it seemed likely to pass. Bipartistan love fest. But then the Internet fought back, from the Free Bieber campaign to online petitions. The number one source of info about SOPA was not the NYT or the Washington Post but a TechDirt blog post. (As an aside, someone launched a take down notice of this blog post, so it didn’t even appear in he Google search engine for a month.) The Reddit community was very active. E.g., when GoDaddy was listed as a supporter of SOPA, Reddit started a campaign to transfer domains from there. GoDaddy changed its mind. The big moment was when Wikipedia blacked out its English-language home page. That page was accessed 162M times that day — a striking ability to raise awareness. Other sites blacked out as well. The effect was dramatic: Within a day Congressional support swung.

For months people have been trying to figure out the “SOPA Story.” How did the number one legislative effort from the number one lobby go down in flames?

In Canada we can go back to Sam Bulte. The rise of groups lobbying for rights. The rise of social networks. The use of social media by rights-favoring politicians. So, in a sense, SOPA is nothing new here in Canada.

Blackouts aren’t new either: 1996 “computer decency act” protest. NewZealand’s protest. Italian-language Wikipedia blacked out last year.

So, in some ways the SOPA Story was nothing new. What’s new is what’s happening after SOPA…the enabling coming to people who think they now can truly affect what happens online. E.g., ACTA protests in Europe. Polish MPs donning Guy Fawkes masks. The dominoes have started to fall against ACTA. Now Neelie Kroes has said that ACTA is all but dead.

Likewise, the Research Works Act tried to scale back access to publicly-funded research. The Net fought back, withdrawing support from Elsevier, the key lobbyist for the RWA. Elsevier has withdrawn support for RWA and there is a petition now to go the other way. [SIGN THE PETITION]

In Canada, Proecting Children from Internet Predators Act — a 100-age bill that contains the word “children” only in its title. The Internet fought back. E.g., TellVic. It has been withdrawn, although temporarily.

The Net is spreading word. E.g., Kony 2012 spread around the world. There’s debate about whether it has had any effect, but the UN from people on the ground is that it has made a difference. Likewise, Trayvon Martin’s story was told through social media. Or, now, the Quebec student initiatives that started with just a few people but has grown because of social media.

LEssons: Don’t underestimate the power of social media to bring prople together to have a voice on issues. Second, SOPA happened only 18 months. We’re seeing a dramatic shift. The full consequences have not yet played out.

The third lesson is pessimistic. If this is the year that the Internet fought back, the battle may have been won but the fight continues. E.g., CETA, Trans Pacific Partnership (copyright tyranny), etc. There are reasons for optimism, but we have a long struggle ahead.
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Q: How long are we going to have to keep fighting our governments? When do we stop having to argue that social interests take priority over business interests?

A: E.g., this week public pressure worked on an act that had been given to the telcos for prior consultation. E.g., look at how the copyright bill has changed: changes to fair dealing, cap on statutory damages, consumer exceptions, etc. None of that was there originally. More politicians get it. But the content industries are powerful. The Internet is becoming an increasingly powerful voice.

Q: ICANN works on a multistakeholder model and has a limited mandate about setting policy. Some want to relegate that authority to the UN that runs it as a think tank. Which way is better?

A: The ITU has been pushing for governance space for then years. At ICANN some stakeholders count more than others. If the UN does it, repressive countries get the keys to the Net. I don’t see the ITU play happening.

Q: With SOPA there was a lot of groupthink. It lacked subtlety and nuance.

A: We’ve had 30 years of lobbying by rights holders with a total lack of nuance: “It’s theft. It’s piracy. Shut it down.” Not reflective of what’s actually happening. So, yes, some are slackivists just clicking on a Like button. But they are more informed than the general populace on these issues. I did a talk for 8th grade students, and almost all of them had heard of SOPA and Kony, and most knew more about Kony than they knew before March of this year.

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[mesh] Rebecca MacKinnon

Rebecca MacKinnon is on stage at the Mesh conference in Toronto, being interviewed by Ron Hyndman about her excellent, excellent book, Consent of the Networked.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Q: What drew you to this? What in your experience of the Internet drew you to this?

A: What drew me to it was my work overseas as a journalist. I was in China for CNN when the Net showed up in China. And we saw how it challenged China’s government. They recognized this from the beginning. They knew that if you want to be globally powerful, you can’t just turn off the Internet, as North Korea did. Over time, when I left CNN and co-founded Global Voices, I was working with bloggers around the world who were facing threats of censorship. Yet there are a lot of voices pushing back.

There were a number of different books I could have written but I kept encountering people who thought the Net is the way it is. But the Net is a variable, not a constant. It’s affected by legislatures, engineers, bureaucrats, a whole range of different actors. Depending on what people do, it can evolve in different directions, some more compatible with democracy and civil liberties than others. Just as if you want Toronto to be governed in a way that protects your rights, those who are most active in shaping it, so you need to be involved in the politics. We need to act more as citizens of the Internet rather than as passive users.

Q: In the early days, the Web was a primitive place. What did you see the gov’t of China doing then, and how was it affecting you as a journalist?

From the getgo it put together the Great Wall of China, a system of filters to block sites it doesn’t want citizens to see.

Q: Did you think it would work?

Journalists learned how to use proxies, got VPNs, etc. The govt was also imposing restrictions on businesses in China, requiring them to police content and comply with surveillance requirements. They held companies liable for what their users do. Now the govt has outsourced a lot of the surveillance to companies. The Great Firewall blocks what’s on servers outside of China by people the Chinese govt can’t arrest. Within the country, the govt can put people in jail. The social media companies within are responsible for monitoring.

[I was called away for ten minutes]

A whistleblower let it be known that AT&T was siphoning off all the traffic and sending it to the NSA. The tech was created by Norris [sp?], now owned by Boeing, licensed via Egypt to Libya and other places. Arrangements and norms liberal democracies have slid into without public debate to deal with crime etc. have been accepted around the world. Take the same technology and practice and stick them in repressive countries and you get human rights abuses.

Q: In the same way military contractors have built private armies, the surveillance world has been outsourced without any transparency. The telecoms in the US negotiated immunity for themselves after the fact.

Yes. FISA. So you can’t sue them for violating the law. Groups have pushed against this. But there’s so much pressure not to be “soft on crime.” Before the Net, we had models for holding power accountable. In the digital world, with cross-border networks, we don’t have a good way of holding power accountable. We need communication companies to be thinking about Shared Value. It won’t be easy or quick.

Q: Democracy has never advanced by people asking politely, as someone said.

With SOPA we’ve seen people being less polite. And the European protests against ACTA. The movement is growing fast.

Q: What do we need to think about when Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, occupy such an enormous part of our online attention?

Lots. How do the rules of terms and service shape our identity on line, and what is known about us. And the decisions about what you can see online. E.g., Apple’s rules for the App Store have come under scrutiny, as when Mark Fiori’s political cartoon was banned for being offensive. What political cartoon isn’t offensive? Or a woman did a documentary on prostitution in Rhode Island, the kind of subject that you hope independent filmmakers will cover. Her app was rejected. No explanation. Meanwhile the App Store allows the HBO app that shows programs about prostitution. There’s a real concern that the Apple Store is skewed against independent artists, and favors the big brands when they have relationships with.

Facebook has this “real name” requirement. You can’t use a pseudonym. In a lot of countries, there are people being arrested for what they post on FB. FB’s refusal to allow pseudonyms and their problematic privacy standards have raised a lot of issues for people who are vulnerable. A lot of US politicians are dependent on FB. You don’t have to ba Syrian dissident. You can be the victim of spousal abuse or someone who doesn’t want your boss to know that you’re interested in gay marriage, FB is not a good place to be.

[Audience now asks questions]

Q: How should a company like NetSweeper think about its business. Should it be asking countries what it’s going to use it for before selling it to them?

You’re right that these are really hard questions. NetSweeper was intended for families to protect their kids. But then they get used at a national level by govts to block content. NetSense has a similar product and just joined the GNI and have committed not to sell their tech to govts that are known human rights abusers. Companies need to do due diligence and draw some lines.

Q: ThePirateBay physically moved servers into the air with balloons, literally in the cloud. Might some companies move the Net away from their country, or even into space, to remove the control?

Someone has a project to create an island in the middle of the ocean and put servers there. Lots of experimentation going on to take servers out of any national jurisdiction. We’ll see how it goes, but I imagine ways will be way to assert jurisdiction over these things. I’m all for trying. But ultimately we have to try to get companies to be more responsible, and impose consequences when they do not respect rights. Political activism is important. We have to re-occupy these other spaces (commercial, govt).

Q: How has Canada done? And do you see the political shift in Canada affecting Internet freedom here?

Let’s leave that for Michael Geist (next speaker).

Al Jazeera played a key role in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but toned down its coverage of Bahrain because of its owners.

That’s why you don’t want to trust any one news source.

Q: Will Iran succeed in disconnecting the country from the Internet?

I don’t know if they’re going to disconnect entirely or try to get citizens using domestic sources primarily. China succeeded because they started at the beginning, and thus there are robust Chinese alternatives to Western social media, thanks to Western venture capitalism. For a lot of users, if you cut them off from the outside Net they wouldn’t notice it for a while. It’s different in Iran where there’s much greater dependence on outside Net services.

Q: NY state wants to impose a law that no site registered in the state can accept anonymous comments?

That’d be pretty unfortunate. I can see some services imposing real name requirements and people can choose to use or not use those services. But pseudonomity is important for people who don’t feel participating in public discourse under their real names. That’d be bad for our democracy.

Rob: Go to Rebecca’s book’s Web site where there’s a tab for “getting involved.”

The paperback will have a new chapter…

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April 20, 2012

Neelie Kroes: European Commission’s voice for the open Internet

Neelie Kroes is becoming one of the open Internet’s most influential supporters.

Kroes is Vice President of the European Commission and is responsible for its “digital agenda.” At the Forum d’Avignon I was at (see here and here) she was just about the only person in a positon of power — economic or regulatory — to suggest that the Internet is actually a good thing for culture, and that we need new ways to think about copyright and distribution. Yesterday she gave a speech at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon in which she called for new thinking to support an open Internet. Most importantly, she explicitly recognized that openness is indeed the property from which the rest of the Net’s value springs.

That a leader of the EC responsible for the “digital agenda” understands this shouldn’t be news. But it is. She even cites Yochai Benkler. Go Neelie!

Her talk begins by nailing its main point:

The best thing about the Internet is that it is open. Indeed it’s built on the idea that every device can talk to every other, using a common, open language. That’s what explains its seemingly endless growth.

Exactly right! Thank you, I’ll be here all week, drive safe, and God bless.

She goes on to explain the many benefits openness brings: “…choice and competition; innovation and opportunity; freedom and democratic accountability.” “Look at what we could do if we opened up our public sectors and put their data online.” She touts open standards. She points to political benefits: “And just look at what openness can do for freedom of speech. The Internet gives a voice to the powerless, and holds the powerful to account.”

Then she turns to the factors that impede openness:

Sometimes the problem is ancient, pre-digital rules that we need to cut back or make more flexible. Other times, openness actually flows from strengthening regulation.

She goes on to say that sometimes it’s about changing a “mindset,” not changing the rules. She says that we need an environment were different models are available and can compete. For example, some people want open discussions and some want moderated forums. We should have all types so people can choose. Likewise, we should have many different business models. People who want to be compensated monetarily for their deserve to be, although many are happy to give away what they’ve created. She says:

Look at the complicating licensing systems for copyrighted material here in Europe. These guarantee that Europeans miss out on great content, they discourage business innovation, and they fail to serve the creative people in whose name they were established.

Woohoo!

After nodding to the need for security and privacy, she gets down to the infrastructure level:

…open competition, brought by the EU, has delivered for Europe. It offers consumers better deals and new, tailored services; market players new opportunities; and potential investors legal certainty.

She states her firm commitment to net neutrality. She is fine with having many market choices, including for cheaper plans that provide limited bandwidth, or access designed for specialized preferences. But, she says, there must always be truly open, neutral access, and she points to the BEREC study due in May that should tell us whether in Europe truly open access is being offered to everyone as an option.

Great speech, especially from a person in her position.

So, let me tell you my one concern. Kroes’ idea of openness means that the Net ecosystem should support the option for closed systems for those who want them: It needs to support copyright and it needs to support offerings from access providers that limit access. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you try to engineer an open system to support closed options. So, even the most crazed copyright supporter (let’s just call him, oh I don’t know, “Sarkozy”) is happy to let people give away their own content if they should be nutty enough to want to do so. But to support the “equal and opposite” option of being able to sell content, Sarkozy wants to rejigger the entire system to prevent “piracy.” If you want to offer the closed option with sufficient rigor to prevent all violations, the system would need to become closed. Kroes is certainly not advocating that closure, but the piece I feel is missing from her talk is the recognition that the value of openness surpasses the value that would come from a system engineered to so scrupulously protect IP. We have to accept some degree of risk for IP in order to have the openness that brings us the values Kroes is so eloquent about.

Likewise, I have no problem with access providers offering plans with data caps or that throttle bandwidth (assuming they’re transparent about it); that does not violate my idea of net neutrality. But there are conceivable plans for “specialist user needs” (as Kroes calls them) that would be discriminatory: A plan that gives priority to the delivery of movies (for example) would give those movie bits priority over the non-movie bits that other users of the Net care about. Personally, I think the best protection for the open Internet is structural separation: access providers sell you access — including tiered services — but are not allowed to sell either content or services that discriminate among bits. I don’t know where Kroes stands on this, but again I would have preferred a clear statement about it.

But now I’m just being greedy. Neelie Kroes is an Internet champion at time when we desperately need one.

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March 22, 2012

Harold Feld’s explanation of an FCC issue you probably are paying no attention to but that is likely to determine the fate of telecommunications in the US

In fact, Harold’s post is so long that I’m only half way through it, but I have to leave for a plane. In it he explains in some detail the history and ramifications of… well, here’s a taste from near the beginning:

…Verizon graciously offered to buy out Cox’s AWS spectrum so that Cox could get out of the wireless business. And, in what can only be an amazing coincidence for utterly independent agreements that should in no way make anyone think that the major cable players are colluding with their Telco/Wireless chief rival, Verizon and Spectrumco offered to let Cox in on the same three agreements to become exclusive resllers and become a member of the “Joint Operating Entity” (JOE) to develop all these cool new technologies.
So you see, it’s all totally innocent, and does not in the least look like a cartel agreeing not to compete, dividing up markets, and setting up a Joint Operating Entity so they can continue to meet and discuss their business plans on an ongoing basis while developing a patent portfolio to use against competitors like DISH and T-Mobile…

Harold Feld works for Public Knowledge, which works for an open Internet.

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February 29, 2012

Apple blocking books that link to Amazon

Seth Godin reports that the Apple store is refusing to carry his new book:

I just found out that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) store…

We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

Seth is properly nervous about imposing demands on private companies about what they will or will not carry. But he finds what I think is the right argument in this case. first, the online marketplace for books simply as a matter of fact is dominated by three players: Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. This dominance imposes particular responsibilities for keeping such a crucial enabler of our culture open. Second, the vertical integration of this market — the dominate sellers of ebook hardware are also the dominant sellers of ebooks — imposes a similar cultural obligation.

Seth concludes:

I think that Amazon and Apple and B&N need to take a deep breath and make a decision on principle: what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to.

(PS: It is genuinely irrelevant that the example of a book Seth was linking to is Too Big to Know. Although it pleases me to be linked to by Seth :)

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February 11, 2012

It was NOPA to SOPA, but now stop ACTA from becoming a FACTA

To quote Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing: “Stop ACTA & TPP: Tell your country’s officials: NEVER use secretive trade agreements to meddle with the Internet. Our freedoms depend on it!” ACTA (Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is a global trade agreement that’s like SOPA except that it’s secret and does not require legislative approval. TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) is a secret 9-country deal (including the US) that is even more restrictive than ACTA.

Today is a day of international protest. Please consider registering your concern via this form from Fight For the Future.

 

Stop ACTA & TPP: Tell your country’s officials: NEVER use secretive trade agreements to meddle with the Internet. Our freedoms depend on it!

For European users, this form will email every Member of the European Parliament with a known email address.
Fight For The Future may contact you about future campaigns. We will never share your email with anyone. Privacy Policy

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February 10, 2012

Power politics in the age of Google

[live-blogged yesterday] I’ve come in 30 minutes late (Sorry! I had it marked wrong on my schedule) to a panel at the Kennedy School about politics and the Net. The panel is outstanding: Susan Crawford, Micah Sifry, Nicco Mele, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Elaine Kamarck, moderated by Alex Jones.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I enter, Susan is saying that SOPA was put forward to make PIPA [Senate version] look reasonable, but it obviously backfired. But, she warns, the type of concerted effort that defeated SOPA is special and rare; we can’t count on it happening again.

Nicco says that Google has doubled its lobbying budget, spending $10M this past year. But it hasn’t made much of a dent against the tight relationships among the entertainment industry lobbyists and Congress. “This is not the end of this issue,” he says, referring to the battle over Hollywood content. “It’s more like a battle in the middle of the opening third.” He adds, “The power of the grassroots to shape and drive the debate…was a shock to the insular world inside the Beltway.”

Alex: Suppose there had been the outcry but not the going dark? Was it going dark that did it?

Nicco: It was an expression of the intensity of the situation. It might have had the same outcome. Google didn’t go dark and drove a huge amount of traffic to anti-SOPA sites.

Susan: Google joined a parade smaller sites like Reddit.com had started.

Alex: Is this a watershed moment?

Elaine: No. Sometimes DC gets things wrong. E.g., a Medicare bill was repealed after 16 months because the seniors went nuts about it. This was pre-Internet. “Old ladies were throwing rotten eggs at Dan Rostenkowski.” Also, in 2006 there were local protests against a bipartisan immigration reform law. SOPA was a perfect example of a bunch of old guys — Chris Dodd et al. — not understanding that they were playing with fire. They didn’t take into account the intensity the Net citizens felt. There’s nothing fundamentally different from what we’ve seen before: Sometimes the folks in Washington just don’t get it.

Alex: We tried to get people on the other side to join us, but I’ll take their side. An op-ed yesterday said that the anti-SOPA digital tsunami was an abuse of democracy.

Micah: That was a frustrating op-ed because he doesn’t imagine that the citizens who were linking and faxing had agency. He assumes they were all duped by Google etc. Citizens can inform themselves, make up their minds, and take action. That said, I think it’s worth noting that some of these companies have immense power. It’s fair to ask how far can they responsibly use that power? I’d argue that most of these companies are in a more responsive relationship to their users than much of old media, especially not Hollywood and the recording industry. They are far more likely to listen to their customers and respond to them. Also, anyone who raises the issue of abusive media power needs to be asked how Fox News helped create the Tea Party Movement, cheerleading people to go to the first rallies. The media coverage on Fox took place before the manifestation of what it was “covering.” For me the fact that the anti-SOPA movement was a civic-commercial hybrid is fascinating.

Alex: Truman ordered the Army to bust up a train strike. Google and the Web overall have become the nervous system of the world. At what point does the power of a privately owned nervous system becomes so great that its even considering withholding services becomes inappropriate?

Alexis: The op-ed was malarkey. All sites are made equal, so if Wikipedia closed down for a week, there would be a new instance of it almost immediately. Likewise if the search engines went down. It is such a frictionless market.

Susan: Legally, infrastructure like transportation and physical access lines is different from the content. When it comes to train line or someone providing cable access to your home, there are extraordinarily high start-up costs. They can be natural monopolies since it may not make sense to have more than one. Google is not a natural monopoly.

Elaine: Laying a transatlantic cable is a big, expensive undertaking. Those infrastructure companies are governed like utilities. The Net access providers claim that they should be able to charge Google more for carrying their content, and that battle will play out over the next decade. So, there are clashes, but the SOPA battle isn’t like that. The US federal govt is not prepared to think about governing the Net. You can see this in its approach to cybersecurity. There’s a nasty cycle: cybercrime is one of those crimes you can pretty much guarantee you’re never going to be caught at. We’re not ready as a country to think about regulating the Net to prevent it. The MPAA and RIAA are really not ready to deal with this. They’re playing an old game. They and a lot of people in Washington don’t understand the issues.

Alex: What are the issues where the govt ought to be thinking about regulation?

Nicco: I don’t think we have a handle on these issues yet. Our leaders lack a fundamental understanding. One way to deal with this would be to introduce a mandatory retirement age for Congress. [it's a joke, sort of.] They’re fundamentally out of touch with how most Americans are living their lives.

Alex: How seriously should we take Anonymous? The nihilistic impulse and incredible skill?

Micah: It’s hard to generalize about Anonymous. It’s a shape shifter. I asked someone researching them if she could assure me that they’re not the Russian Mafia. She said she couldn’t; you just don’t know. And it’s not just Anonymous: the Arabs and Israelis are going after each other. We should also keep in mind that on sites like Reddit.com and CraigsList.com you get daily acts of altruism.

Susan: User empowerment/agency is almost always the right reaction to bad acts and bad speech.

Alex: How about identifying malefactors?

Micah: It’s a good thing you can’t. If we reengineered the Net so you could, the people who would be hunted down would mainly by dissidents. It’s a double-sided sword.

Elaine: You’ve expressed the Zeitgeist of the Net. At some point, criminals will get smarter and will steal billions of dollars from people on Facebook. There’s a crisis point for the Net coming. It won’t be shut down, but it will fundamentally change. It’s not inconceivable that in 20 yrs will have a different Net because people will demand it because someone will have stolen thousands of dollars from us all, or they will withdraw from the one Net and instead will form cloistered nets.

Susan: I agree. There will be a meltdown and people will react with fear. We need to train our reps to understand what the Net is so that they can have an intelligent response.

Alexis: People are afraid of hackers. But the problem is that security is terrible. Banks need to take online security much more seriously.

Alex: Has Wikileaks changed the way people share info?

Susan: The State Dept. no longer shares cables with the Defense Dept.

Alexis: The weak point is always human.

Micah: When I hear you talking about criminals attacking the banks, I think the criminals are running the banks. We’re moving away from trust in centralized institutions and more trust in ourselves. I mentioned Kickstarter.com at the start of this panel [missed it!], and it’s taking off to the extent that in Detroit they’re starting to refer to it as a grassroots WPA. Nicco and I think that the anti-SOPA moment was different because it wasn’t just a shout, but it was when a large community began to realize its own power to shift how things work.

Elaine: Seniors aren’t an interest group?

Micah: Yes, but they worked through a single lobbying group.

Susan: Now they have network.

Alex: But you said we can’t do this too many times…

Suan: But now that the Internet community can see itself, it is forming new associations and networks…

Alex: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in working together…

Alexis: Hollywood should see the Net as another channel to make money. 10% of the entries at Sundance this year were funded by fans via Kickstarter.

Alex: The anti-SOPA group spanned politics. Matt Drudge was part of it. Are either the Dems or the Repubs better at this?

Alexis: It’s become a political issue.

[And just under the wire, Micah gets in a Google-Santorum joke.]

Q: The Net can be brought down any time…
Susan: It would be extremely difficult to bring it down. The root servers are echoed all over the world. The real risk is that physical cables between companies can be cut. We have too few Internet providers. The great thing about the Net is that it works just well enough — a best-effort network. The NSA has a tremendous amount of info about the threats and attacks. That info should be shared with the operators of the networks and banks in ways that are safe for them so they can cooperate. But you don’t want to burn the village to save it.

Q: What are the lessons from SOPA for citizens and for smaller sites?
Alexis: It’s easy to put up a one-off site to help organize and get attention. That just takes some html and a good idea.
Nicco: How much do you think of Reddit as a political force?
Alexis: It’s not. The people there are. The SOPA protest bubbled up from subreddits. At that point it got the attention of the staff. For us, it was 12 hours of lost revenues, but traffic was up the next day. We built Reddit as a meritocracy. We strive to make sure that if something comes to the front page, it’s genuinely popular.

Nicco: The point of the Constitution is to regulate lunatic populism.

Elaine: No, you take populism into account when governing.

Nicco: Someday Reddit’s mgt may be faced with a decision about going against the community’s preferences.

Alex: The huge anti-SOPA outpouring was only about 10M, which is less than a plebiscite.

Elaine: This is an issue with no clear answer. They heard the outcry, and the reps who had signed on without reading the bill pulled back. This happens not just with Net issues. E.g., Cap and Trade.

Q: [me] Is there a Net constituency, Net values, and does the Net shape political consciousness?
Micah: We’re seeing a change in consciousness: a willingness to dig and share. The Net is conducive to those values, although not everyone who uses it will share those values. But many of these sites have constituencies. This is a sharing economy. The Net is enabling something that was always there in American culture: barn raisings, rent sharing. And some of the things you can do are organically natural: I don’t think you can convince 75M American teens that they’re all thieves. And they’re going to be voters. They’re going to ask what sorts of businesses they can build on top of that sharing.

Q: Alexis, how have you been tweeting during this panel?
A: Katrina has been tweeting in my name. That’s trust!

Q: Tim Wu has made a compelling argument that historically information empires start out open and then become monopolies. Google is young and it’s already finishing our sentences [auto-complete], which is a powerful way of shaping consciousness. The more people are searching, the easier it is to improve your service, so there are economies of scale in search. Hence, monopolies could emerge that have serious barriers to entry.
Nicco: The history of personal computers + connectivity is about empowering individuals and making it easier for small things to destroy big things. I’m not convinced that Google’s advantage is large enough to make it a monopoly.
Micah: I worry that Google can manipulate search results in undisclosed ways. If they favor results that favor their own products, which they’re starting to do now, they’re taking a risk. Their value is that they give us the best results, and if they don’t do that, other sites may get traction. And if they start favoring their own products they can be accused of antitrust violations. They have immense power and I don’t see how to get them to be more transparent without giving up trade secrets.
Alexis: We’re allies with Google as a matter of convenience. If they started lobbying in DC against Net interests, everyone would abandon them. And we think when it comes to building products, we could beat ‘em.

Q: Google is becoming a content producer. Might they switch to pro-SOPA?
Alexis: I don’t know, but if they did, we’d line up against them.

Q: People in this room could switch search engines, but for many people, it’d be harder.
Susan: There’s something about the Google logo that’s like the clown in a horror movie. They haven’t broadened their model beyond targeting ads. Antitrust authorities look at Google very hard. The FTC and DoJ are watching.

Q: Why didn’t Facebook protest SOPA?
Micah: FB is one of the more serious monsters. They signed onto some of the letters but there was no serious activity by the leaders. They want to get into China and don’t want the Chinese govt to think they’re a platform for dissension. Interpret all their actions in that context.
Susa: They see themselves like a media property. They’re the ESPN of the network. Watch FB’s relationship with the carriers. They’re going to want special treatment so that FB becomes the Internet for you. AOL tried it and Americans loved it.

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January 26, 2012

European Parliament has official look into ACTA. He then resigns in disgust.

From Techdirt:

Kader Arif, the “rapporteur” for ACTA, has quit that role in disgust over the process behind getting the EU to sign onto ACTA. A rapporteur is a person “appointed by a deliberative body to investigate an issue.” However, it appears his investigation of ACTA didn’t make him very pleased:

I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.

As rapporteur of this text, I have faced never-before-seen manoeuvres from the right wing of this Parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted, thus depriving the Parliament of its right to expression and of the tools at its disposal to convey citizens’ legitimate demands.” …

ACTA is what SOPA would be if you believed in global conspiracies writing secret agreements to do roughly the same thing. Except ACTA is real. This is not one of the issues where the Obama administration, which I overall enthusiastically support, is making me real happy.

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January 10, 2012

Going dark for SOPA

Reddit is going to go dark for 12 hours to protest SOPA. The community is going to decide what will be on the page. Well done, Reddit! I hope other sites join in. (Reddit is claiming some credit for moving Paul Ryan from neutral to anti-SOPA. It’s fascinating to watch what Reddit is becoming.)

BlackOutSopa.org lets you paste a “Stop SOPA” banner across your Twitter photo with just one click. They also let you remove it once we’ve won.

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